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‘Their real value is symbolic’: Why Canada shares details about weapons for Ukraine


Announcements about machine guns and sniper rifles are directed at the primary audience — Canadians

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Machine guns. Pistols. Carbines. 1.5 million rounds of ammunition. Sniper rifles.

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Those are some of the lethal weapons that Canada has offered to Ukraine. The federal government also announced an additional $25 million in military aid that could include helmets, body armour, gas masks and night vision gear. This information, with details of how Canada plans to support Ukraine — and what, exactly, the government is doing — is readily available online.

But why is this very specific information made public?

“The reason I think the government can be specific about the weapons it’s sending to Ukraine is because, while they are militarily important, their real value is symbolic,” said Timothy Andrews Sayle, assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s department of history and director of the international relations program.

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“It’s not like Canada is giving Ukraine a brand new capability that is going to change what the Ukrainians can do and that the Russians would have to adapt as a result.”

The aid announcements are directed at Canadians, who are the primary audience (along with those who have deep ties to Ukraine). Canadians gathered in the thousands over the weekend to protest against Russia and rally in support of Ukrainians. The government making the decision to share such announcements is likely a “response to this enormous public outcry over the invasion,” said Sayle.

Like the protests, announcements can have an effect on Ukrainians too, said Sayle, especially announcements made publicly by the government about sending weapons, which may “play a role in [Ukrainian] morale and their will to fight.”

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Sayle expects that the Russian government is keeping an eye on these announcements, as well.

“Even more than that, they’re seeking to monitor what sorts of weapons are going to Ukraine,” he said, adding that they have “an impact in Russia because they offer evidence to the Russians that governments are willing to give these weapons and that they’re willing to do so publicly.”

Canada, in some cases, is not only indicating what type of weaponry is on the way, but how it will reach Ukraine.

The statements alone — like one made by Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly on Monday — are not detrimental to the overall mission of supporting Ukraine, said Sayle.

Joly told reporters during a virtual press conference that the latest shipment of lethal weapons would be sent through Poland. She added that she would be travelling to Poland on Tuesday to “see with my own eyes” what is happening, after receiving an agreement that the delivery could be done through its borders.

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A report by The Telegraph revealed that there was a “logjam” of Western-donated weapons in Poland, with Ukrainians fearing they could run out of ammunition within days as a result. However, even with the information available, it would likely not provoke Russia to stop the shipments, said Sayle, because that would spark a full-fledged war with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

“The path that these weapons take is protected if they travel through NATO airspace and NATO countries,” he explained. “To try and enter Poland — either covertly or overtly to stop the entrance of those weapons —  would be an act of war, in this case, against Poland, which would trigger the Article 5 element of the NATO treaty.”

Article 5 states that if a NATO ally is attacked, all members will take the actions necessary to assist the ally under attack, according to NATO.

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Although it seems like there has been an influx of information, Sayle said it’s important to note what is not being shared — the details of cyber defence and cyber operations.

“These are areas where we won’t expect details now and probably won’t learn about details for a long, long time,” he said. “These are capabilities that the Government of Canada has that it does not share with Canadians. It doesn’t share these details even in peace time.”

Other details not being shared likely have to do with a potential contingency plan by NATO in case the war expands. As an ally, Canada would be part of these discussions, which are expected to remain secret.

The information that is available, however, said Sayle, is unlike any other time period in Canadian history. With the internet, and especially social media, he said Canadians are able to see what’s going on in Ukraine in real-time: children in subway tunnels taking shelter, elderly women standing in the street in front of Russian military vehicles and regular people fighting in the streets.

“This situation is really strikingly different, both in the speed and the scale of information that’s available to Canadians,” said Sayle. “I do think that is having an effect on policy and announcements.”

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